There’s a slight chance I think that the movie should have used the ending from this video
Last night I saw “Jurassic Park” in the 3D version. The best thing I can say about the 3D is that it was executed well enough that I mostly (except for a few awkward shots) forgot I was watching a 3D movie. What I really took away from it, though, was that despite its legendary impact on the use of digital special effects, the CGI really isn’t even in the top five reasons why the movie works, and still works to this day. They matter to the extent that they didn’t trip the movie up, and allowed Spielberg more freedom in the way he blocked and filmed sequences; but really we respond to it for these reasons more than any fascination we have with computer gimmickery:
1) Most of us have a lifelong fascination for dinosaurs. They live in our imagination and Spielberg exploits every aspect of that – the awe and the fear – in equal measure. It is intrinsic to the story that we go into the theatre desperately wanting to see them and, dangerous though it may be, to see them turned loose.
2) Spielberg gets childhood terror. All us “Dr. Who” nerds who know about not blinking for a Weeping Angel understand what amazing tension happens when Grant tells Tim about the T-Rex “He can’t see you if you don’t move”. Staying still and silent in the face of the scariest thing you can imagine – elemental contradictions like that get right to the kid inside you, and this movie is filled with them.
3) CHARACTERS. This is mostly a very well-cast movie, and Spielberg gives the performers room to add life and flourish to their performances. Goldblum’s audacious horndogging and jazzy delivery was immediately iconic even if the movie doesn’t know what to do with him after he articulates the moral of the story, and the whole subplot about Alan/Ellie’s argument over having kids (an invention for the film that effectively parallels the whole notion of responsibility in creating life, as well as giving Alan a character arc as he protects Hammond’s grandchildren) is barely-alluded to in dialogue, and is told mostly in glances. Hammond, instead of the barely-sketched money-grubbing Dr. Frankenstein stand-in in Crichton’s book, gets to be a tragic figure, whose whimsy masks his God-like pretensions and obessions.
4) Spielberg is, at this point in his career, fully-evolved as a thrill-ride engineer, and the way he paces the movie, wrenching us through surprise, suspense, terror, humor, and moments to catch our breath, up to the final money shot of the T-Rex roaring in triumph, is expert. The movie has less cinematic ambition than any of his “Indiana Jones” adventures; it is a self-consciously pure (you might even say blatant) exercise in wind-up blockbuster ecstasy for the whole family, which in its modern incarnation he practically-invented.
5) It did just enough homework to give it pseudoscientific varnish we could accept as a means to get to what we wanted to see; but it also took advantage of that homework to take us beyond the T-Rex and introduce the world to something much, much scarier – that clever little Velociraptor. A good movie knows how to not just give us what we knew we wanted going in, but something extra that it just knows we’re going to love.
Beyond this, the CGI is important, admittedly even crucial, to the extent that it didn’t undermine any of the above. But if you look at the effects movies that appeared after, which used a LOT more CGI than “Jurassic Park” – there’s a reason they’re not a LOT better. Because they didn’t get the above things right. The argument Malcolm and Hammond have about exploiting the tools others developed without any of the sense of responsibility for their proper use just gets more ironically meta with each passing year.
No one ever gets my “Mr. Pilkington” reference
The Expendables 2
Director: Simon West
Writers: story by Ken Kaufman & David Agosto and Richard Wenk, screenplay by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone, based on characters created by Dave Callaham
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Avi Lerner, Danny Lerner, Kevin King Templeton, John Thompson, Les Weldon
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Scott Adkins, Nan Yu
The Expendables 2 is unlike any action movie I have seen, even The Expendables. Whereas the original used its Legends-of-the-Weight-Room casting stunt as both a throwback posture hearkening to days of large biceps and guiltless mayhem, and a source of an occasional wink, its sequel seems to be in full-wink throughout its 103-minute length. And a 103-minute-long wink isn’t a playful gesture, it’s a sign of possible nerve damage.
With a higher budget, the experienced Simon West (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) spelling franchise co-writer/star Sylvester Stallone in the director’s chair, and an expanded ensemble of heroes past, the movie does not fail to be bigger. Even the knives seem longer. But with its premise and the audacity of its blood-spillage less surprising in repetition, this movie makes the conscious choice to push even further into the meta territory of an all-star variety show, with Stallone appointing himself Chairman of a Rat Pack of ultra-violence.
The characters have names, but are they even relevant? What we are watching are veteran movie stars, kidding each other with old catch phrases and characters they have played over the last 35 years in-between killing people who make less money than them. We are there not for the back story or character flourishes of mercenary crew leader Barney Ross (Stallone), but because Stallone has promised us that in this movie, he is going to get into a fight with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and we have watched the both of them fight other people so often that seeing them fight each other, even past their physical prime, sounds appealing. The character played by Van Damme is named “Jean Vilain”, which is in the fine tradition of classical theater and silent melodrama which named characters by their types. You could bill him as “Jean – A Villain” and waste no one’s time.
Adam and I agree that the true measure of a horror movie is not whether it makes you jump or freaks you out, but whether it changes your brain in a long-lasting way. I stand by the fact that the person I was before the first time I watched the original Night of the Living Dead is not the person I was after. For the rest of my life, some part of my brain will be…concerned…about zombies.
One of my cast-mates in Dracula was a bonafide learned smart person, with books published and everything. It prepared him well for the role of Van Helsing. Naturally we and some of the other actors spent a good bit of time discussing horror films, and it was through those conversations that he lent me Imprint. In the over six months since it has sat on my TV stand, and several times I set out to watch it but hesitated, because I had heard of its reputation. But I’m seeing him tonight and he wants it back as research for his new book, so the time had to be now.
Imprint isn’t even a full horror movie, it’s a one-hour story that was made for cable. Showtime did an anthology series called Masters of Horror in which some of the leading lights in the horror genre were given – in theory – carte blanche to scare people for an hour provided they kept the budget under $2 million and the shooting schedule at ten days or less. I thought this was a gem of an idea from the start, but for various reasons the series ended up very scattershot. Whether it was the subpar crews they were forced to use, or uninspired scripts, or the fact that some of them were a couple of decades removed from whatever mad inspiration led to their famous horror achievements, many episodes just flat didn’t work. Among the best are Incident on and off a Mountain Road, directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep), an ingeniously-ruthless serial killer story about a damsel less-in-distress than you think; and Jenifer, directed by Dario Argento (Suspiria), in which a strange and feral woman plays on the lust and protective instincts of men.
But Imprint, directed by the Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, was the one episode of the series that even Showtime refused to air. The series producer Mick Garris, who directed the TV miniseries versions of Steven King’s The Shining and The Stand, said it may be the most disturbing movie he had ever seen. You can see why I would have a mixture of curiosity and concern about it.
I don’t know that I can even describe what makes Imprint so audaciously fucked-up. This is not some punky “look what we can do” gross-out, or nihilism chic like American torture porn. This is a dread fairy tale about the mad cruelty and perversion in the world we’ve made, and how Hell is all around us because of our own deeds. It is a journey that starts on a river, and goes places beyond what you thought you could imagine, but you are so mesmerized you simply believe that you cannot quit the journey.
The story starts with a 19th century American journalist, played by the already deeply-strange actor Billy Drago, on his way to a small island in Japan that serves as a brothel – a Pleasure Island for depraved men. He is in search of a whore named Kimomo; he fell in love with her long ago, swore to find her and rescue her from her life, and then lost track of her. He asks if she is here and is told no. But when he asks for the girl sitting in the shadows to be sent to his room, she confesses to him that Kimomo was here, and was her friend, and that she is now dead.
The journalist rages. He drinks sake. He sees things in the shadows. But he asks this girl – this strange woman with blue hair and a scarred face, to tell him what happened to Kimomo.
This is the first 20 minutes of the hour. Until now, there have been a few gruesome images, a shock or two, but Miike is holding back. You are just carried along by the unrelentingly-weird atmosphere he creates on this island, and the sense that this man should never have come here, but was always going to.
The girl tells her story, both about her own sad and bloody life and the awful fate that befell the innocent Kimomo. It is hideous, almost excruciating to watch. The man refuses to believe it. He demands the truth. And so the girl tells the story again, and this time confesses more, and the story you thought was unbearable becomes even worse.
And now the man believes, but doesn’t understand. There is still something missing that will explain it all. Again, he demands the truth – all of it. And now something is revealed that nothing has prepared you for, and sends your imagination to places you never wanted it to go. The thing about Imprint is, up until its final images it is still torturing your mind. There isn’t any peak gross-out moment followed by release and some nice resolution. It is…and this is its point…perpetual.
It mentions Hell, and demons. It talks about torment. But it doesn’t allow us to expel its greatest evils onto demons. Its supernatural touches are mere feints beyond our reality. We are the offenders, for our ability to imagine doing such things to other people.
Understand, I am not recommending this to just anyone. Miike is an exceptional filmmaker (his 13 Assassins may be the greatest action epic of this generation), and this is an exceptionally well-made film despite the eccentricity of Drago’s performance. But not everybody needs to see this, and certainly not everybody wants to see this. And for good reason. What makes Imprint rank as an all-time great piece of horror filmmaking is that, no matter what you go through while you are watching it (be ready for a lot of cringing and jaw-dropping), what is much worse is that the movie will not leave you after.
Originally published 6/28/2005
Land of the Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Producers: Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Peter Grunwald
Stars: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark
When last we left George Romero’s zombies in 1985’s Day of the Dead, they had lurched and eaten their way through most of civilization. But more interestingly, they were beginning to show signs of a dim but awakening consciousness. Certainly nowhere near “I think, therefore I am”, their primary motive was still to find and devour whatever living flesh they could, but some vestigal memory and curiosity was asserting itself more strongly than in previous chapters. And in the case of the surprisingly sympathetic trained zombie Bub, it could even summon up from its rotting cerebrum how to find the business end of a gun. As if the human race wasn’t in enough trouble.
Now Romero, who first unleashed his moaning, skin-rending ghouls on an unsuspecting public with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and redefined the horror genre, is finally back to follow up on that tease with Land of the Dead, in which the zombies’ slow mental evolution continues even as their bodies grow ever more green and cadaverous. Day of the Dead was a compromised vision, and only told part of the story he wanted to tell. Now, armed with new technology, a heftier budget, and a ratings board which is much more generous with its “R”’s than it used to be, he is able to fully realize the late stages of the zombie plague, and it makes for a cinematic nightmare both excruciating and thought-provoking that not only stands on its own but can stand proudly next to its predecessors.
Originally published 6/21/2005
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Story by David S. Goyer, Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters appearing in D.C. Comics and “Batman” created by Bob Kane
Producers: Charles Roven, Larry Franco, Emma Thomas
Stars: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Mark Boone, Jr., Linus Roache
With Batman Begins the emancipation of the superhero movie is complete. It began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, unironic popcorn delights not afraid of granting dignity to their story themes, and grew with Sam Raimi’s version of Spiderman, which surged joyously against the boundaries of its frame and proudly wore its turmoiled heart on its sleeve.
It is fitting that the process comes to maturity with a new iteration of the character that cast the longest shadow over superhero movies in this generation. While spotty from a story perspective Tim Burton’s Batman movies were eccentric and beautiful operas of the grotesque, Gothic edifices for Rococo freaks to trash. But subsequent sequels and imitators embraced the outsized aesthetics and cartoonish antics but without Burton’s quirky zeal for the damaged, and the whole genre suffered. This version, a collaboration between Blade trilogy author David S. Goyer and Memento and Insomnia director Christopher Nolan, purges the Batman myth of all the cancerous style-over-substance claptrap which polluted it and other would-be superhero franchises and gives it a fresh, exhilarating beginning.
Originally published 6/14/2005
Lords of Dogtown
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Stacy Peralta
Producer: John Linson
Stars: John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Nikki Reed, Rebecca DeMornay, Heath Ledger, Michael Angarano
“What profits, man? This is a surf shop!” This is the confused response of Skip (Heath Ledger), owner/operator of Zephyr Surfboards, to the suggestion that he start cutting in his award-winning skateboard team on some of the profits they have generated since becoming a national sensation. When he sells skateboards at their competitions he stuffs the cash in his shirt pocket – we get the impression that he will then pull that cash back out to pay for beer or rent, whichever comes first, and this is as complicated as he allows his finances to get. And this is why, we sense, that this pure, partying passionate moment has a time limit on it.
As previously chronicled in the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (co-written and directed by ex Z-Boy Stacy Peralta, who writes the screenplay for this version as well), in the mid-70’s in the slums of Venice, California, a group of young thrill-seekers started devoting more time to the burgeoning trend of skateboarding. Although the weathered and experienced surfers Skip runs with think of skateboards as kids’ stuff, two unrelated events conspire to explode its popularity. First, new urethane wheels allow harder turns – “they grip!”, everyone enthuses to each other. Second, a drought has locals emptying their swimming pools to conserve water. Skaters, tired of having to fight off the older crowd for waves on the ocean, start practicing death-defying stunts in the rounded concrete of any pool basin whose owner isn’t paying attention.
Originally published 6/6/2005
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writer: J.J. Connolly, based on his novel
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Stars: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, Jamie Foreman, Michael Gambon, Sally Hawkins, Sienna Miller, George Harris, Tom Hardy
For all the drug deals, double-crosses, sex, shootings, and posh lunches that roll by in the compact running time of Layer Cake, you leave realizing that what’s really mattered in the movie are a few key conversations. They are not flashy or decorously poetic like Tarantino or Guy Ritchie (the original director before other commitments called him away) might have written them; they’re sober, matter-of-fact, the grim revelations of men facing the pasts that will not stop chasing them – like the night 30 years ago when a young man named Jerry Kilburn (Ben Brasier) stuck a shotgun in his mouth and altered the fate of almost everyone around him.
These same men must also vigilantly watch the money they cannot seem to stop people from trying to grab away. The trafficking of narcotics in Britain is presented as simply an armed mirror-image of standard corporate procedure – those who are already rich use the power of their position to feed off everyone below them and become even richer, and those who are not yet rich dream of having that kind of power so they can stop being screwed and start screwing.
Our unnamed hero (Daniel Craig), the credits call him “XXXX”, is a well-off mid-level cocaine dealer, a professional man with a clear vision of the dangers of his trade and a desire to make a clean break once he has earned his nest egg. We recognize his type – hard-faced actors like DeNiro have made bankable livings off the “one last job” genre at least as far back as Bogart in High Sierra. XXXX smartly points out that one of these days drugs will be legalized, as soon as the legally-rich get sufficiently jealous of all the money they generate. In the meantime, more adventurous “businessmen” like himself can profit.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Elliott Gould, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, Chin Han
Contagion works as a movie because it feels more than plausible; it feels inevitable. Modern society simply presents too great a window of opportunity for an enterprising virus to catapult around the world faster than we can map it, track it, and immunize against it. That one hasn’t yet is just probabilities.
There have been many plagues throughout history, and science has done its best to minimize the damage. As our science improves, so do the viruses. They, after all, are also fighting to survive and evolve. This thriller, directed by the prodigious Steven Soderbergh, chronicles the emergence of a frighteningly-successful new flu and humanity’s response as days turn to months and a handful of casualties becomes millions. Early on, a scientist identifies it as essentially the offspring of a chance meeting between a sick bat and a sick pig – no terrorist weapon, no evil plot, just virus kismet.
Last night I saw the final Harry Potter film, and once again appreciated that the Potter film franchise brought together an ultimate dream cast of British thespians. You wonder that the biggest challenge in a Potter film may not have been the preponderance of special effects required to realize J.K. Rowling’s world, but simply the scheduling for all the talent.
But I am noticing something as I watch trailers for upcoming films. Here is the featured cast for Steven Soderbergh’s September thriller Contagion: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne – not to mention supporting turns from star-emeritus Elliot Gould, and Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes. Those eight actors have all either won or been nominated for Academy Awards. The ever-busy Soderbergh also has an action thriller set for release in January – Haywire. And while the star is Gina Carano, a mixed-martial arts fighter making her feature film debut, the cast around her features Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, X-Men: First Class star Michael Fassbender, and G.I. Joe star Channing Tatum. Film casts are getting conspicuously more star-studded these days, as posters swell with five, six, or more of the bold-faced names of a caliber which studios would formerly need only one or two to launch a blockbuster.
Back in the mid-90’s, it was the check cut for Jim Carrey to star in The Cable Guy that launched the so-called $20 Million Club for movie stars, and soon every agent worth their cocaine was striving to make sure their guy was either in that club or perceived as being worthy of that club. Salary quotes got set high, fixed fast and reported loud, so that if a star ever worked below-quote, it was a major artistic event. For several years, the name was the star, and so movies were getting made that had only one or two “star”-quality roles, because you just couldn’t afford any more than that. Ensembles that were rich in talent, dazzle, or both were so rare that Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean’s Eleven was greeted as an astonishing anomaly.
The pendulum was swinging. Studios and audiences worked together in unconscious conspiracy to undermine the caste system and make the brand the superior star to the actor. In the wake of Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings, getting John Travolta was suddenly penny-ante compared with having an action-fantasy property that had name recognition and “four-quadrant” demographic potential. People don’t talk as much about star salaries these days – and you would think that if they were going up, the agencies would be boasting. They’re not.
But I think, as I have pointed out before, that we have passed the break-point where larger and larger budgets are being applied to less and less valuable “brands”, and so the pendulum is swinging back. Not all the way to the other side again, but a little ways back towards taking advantage of the buyer’s market for acting talent and realizing creative and financial benefits from it.
Here are a few examples just from the mainstream fare of 2011: Behind new star Chris Hemsworth, Thor pulled together Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, and Stellan Skarsgard, not to mention trustworthy players like Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, and Colm Feore. The solidly-successful comedy Horrible Bosses combined Jason Bateman, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston, and comedy stars with built-in niche fan bases like Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day. Even Ron Howard’s underperforming comedy The Dilemma had Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Channing Tatum, and Queen Latifah. That’s a mid-budget movie with six separate stars who have all, at one point or another, been THE name launching a movie.
Even Transformers: Dark of the Moon found some cracks behind the pretty people and giant robots to wedge in the likes of John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, and treats for the character-actor connoisseur like Alan Tudyk and Ken Jeong. Have you looked at the cast list for next year’s The Dark Knight Rises yet? Because you should. And I don’t know if you noticed, but Tim freaking Robbins had a supporting role in The Green Lantern. When a movie like Super 8 comes along that doesn’t have many famous faces in it (just Friday Night Lights lead Kyle Chandler), it has to qualify as a conscious creative choice by the filmmaker, since the names are clearly available for the asking.
Part of it is a function of how massive and expensive an “A” picture can be these days – it takes a lot of artists to carry it. Part, too, is that fewer movies are being made for major theatrical release. Fewer and smaller paydays means that actors and their representatives are going to get more competitive when it comes to booking roles, and that competition appears to be manifesting itself in these bounteous ensembles.
I think that’s a good thing for Hollywood product. Special effects are impressive but you need the artistry of performers to bring humanity to any film, and so even when a movie fails as a piece of storytelling (and it can fail so easily no matter who you cast) there’s at least a lot of personality along the way. It has effectively closed the $20 Million Club for business with only rare exceptions – Daniel Radcliffe was pulling around that figure for the final Harry Potter movies because, well, do you want to be the one to try replacing him to save a buck? But that’s not payment for a name – that’s for a name and its value when wedded to a brand. Radcliffe is starting to book his post-Potter career, and you can bet his salary is not going to be the same – what’s more, it seems understood now. Just a normal part of business.
Maybe my perception is amplified by the fact that, as an obsessive movie-viewer who also works in the business, I just recognize more names. But whether audiences realize it or not, there is at least one aspect of Hollywood product in which they are genuinely getting more for their money these days. And it isn’t the 3D markup.
(Full disclosure: I know a couple of the guys who wrote the script for X-Men: First Class. I’d feel the same way about their movie if I knew them or not, but part of the reason to write this is really to thank them for such a great piece of entertainment that could have gone wrong in so many ways, yet somehow went right.)
There’s a scene in X-Men: First Class that I would gladly show in the screenwriting class I teach. It happens in the first ten minutes, so it’s not as big a SPOILER as some things I could mention from the movie, but if you don’t want this pivotal scene laid out in detail for you in advance (some of you are that pure in your desires, bless you), then read no further.